Tag Archives: realistic

Carve the Mark by Veronica Roth

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Carve the Mark by Veronica Roth
Katherine Tegen Books, 2017.

Set in a galaxy far far away, this speculative novel, first in a duology, has some familiar and some new elements from brand name author Veronica Roth of the Divergent series. The world building is far more complex than she has attempted before, which makes the initial chapters are rather laborious and confusing as a plethora of characters, cultures, and political and religious systems are thrown at the reader. Once the novel gets into its rhythm, however, this all makes more sense and there’s some intriguing ideas around “the current” – the major force in this universe – and the currentgifts that each individual develops at puberty.

We are also in familiar star-cross’d lovers territory with the two leads coming from different nations living on the same planet. White Akos is the younger son of a high-ranking Thuvhesit family who is kidnapped by the cruel and ruthless Shotet leader, Ryzek, to be an aide to his sister “medium brown, almost golden” Cyra. The novel is a split narrative, and Cyra’s first person account is much more immersive than Akos’s third person point of view. Despite Akos and Cyra coming from the opposite sides of a planetary civil war, what do you think might happen?

As with Divergent, there are themes of identity, destiny, and how an individual can change and determine these. While high-ranking family members each have a foretold fate, these are ambiguous enough that their apparently obvious meaning may be twisted in a way that makes for a satisfying plot. Despite coming in at 468 pages, the pacing and plot will keep the reader engaged, and looking forward to the completing novel. With more sadism and more complex worldbuilding than her previous series, Carve the Mark will work best for older YA readers.

Ramona Blue by Julie Murphy

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Ramona Blue by Julie Murphy
Balzer + Bray, 2017.

Eulogy Beach, MS still shows signs of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina over a decade ago.White high school senior Ramona “Blue” Leroux, her older sister, Hattie, and father are still living in the FEMA issued trailer. Ms Murphy’s novel sympathetically portrays life on the margins: Ramona works two jobs to help her family scrape by and save a little for herself, but now Hattie is pregnant and her feckless boyfriend is moving in, making Ramona feel more trapped than ever.

Ramona Blue, nicknamed for her love of the ocean, is a wonderful character and Ms Murphy makes her thoughtful and credible. Self-described as “the white trash lesbian from the trailer park,” she stands out in all respects – over 6’ tall with blue hair and one of the few out people in town. Her allegiance to her family gives her a sense of responsibility which she shoulders lightly and with goodwill.

At the start of senior year, she’s still entwined in a romance with closeted holiday visitor Grace who now seems to be distancing herself. And then Freddie, a “light-skinned black boy” who used to be a regular summer visitor and close friend returns. Freddie is a lot of things that Ramona isn’t – well-off, secure, and with a sense of his future. When Ramona starts swimming at the Y with him she finds it fills a need she didn’t know she had and her friendship with Freddie starts to develop into something more.

Murphy does a great job of peopling Ramona’s world with believable, appealing characters. Her family, though down on its luck, is tight-knit and supportive, and her friend group, though small, has the sort of charm and wit that is common in YA novels but is not usually portrayed so believably. Her relationship with Freddie also allows Ramona to consider “what being black in the South might mean.”

Over the year, Ramona learns that just because something is not bad, that doesn’t make it good and she finds a direction and purpose in her life that is about just her and her choice.

Ms Murphy has a knack of creating quirky offbeat characters that engage and charm and can expand the reader’s view of ‘normal’. Though I didn’t love this quite as much as Dumplin’ (2015), it was still a very pleasurable read.

Thanks to Balzer + Bray and Edelweiss for the digital review copy.

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Beck by Mal Peet with Meg Rosoff

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Beck by Mal Peet with Meg Rosoff
Candlewick, 2017.

Set in the early 20th century, this powerful, spare novel, written by Mal Peet and completed by Meg Rosoff after his death, centers on Beck who, with a long gone African father and dead white mother, finds himself at the mercy of a cruel system. Starved and mistreated at a Liverpudlian orphanage and then, at the age of 15, shipped to Canada where he is physically and sexually abused by the Christian Brotherhood before being given as slave labor to a farmer. Finally Beck takes his fate into his own hands and runs off, simply heading west with no purpose.

For much of the novel, Beck drifts and is a passive, somewhat detached presence. He yearns for something but cannot articulate what he wants until he sees it in others: love, family, home. His monochromatic lack of emotion is set against the rich glow of those who come to love him. Bone and Irma, a black couple involved in bootlegging, take him in and show him what love can look like. Then Grace, an older woman with Siksika mother and white father, finds him in a state of almost primal rebirth after a storm and takes him in. Their mutual desire stirs him deeply and confuses him and this relationship is the focal point of the novel.

Beck’s horrifying treatment by the priests, though limited in detail, and the realistically portrayed racism of the era make this book more suitable for older teen and adult readers.

Mal Peet died before he finished this novel and Meg Rosoff completed it. Afterwords from  Rosoff and Peet’s wife give few clues as to how the book was written, though Rosoff does tip her hat to Peet’s turn of phrase.

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Giant Pumpkin Suite by Melanie Heuiser Hill

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Giant Pumpkin Suite by Melanie Heuiser Hill
Candlewick, September 2017.

12 year-old Rose Brautigan is a musical prodigy, has skipped several grades at school, and is cruising through college level math. Her twin brother, Thomas, on the other hand is just a regular kid. But over the course of one summer, their interests come together as they grow a giant pumpkin.

Rose herself starts off as an insufferable prig – she makes little allowance for others’ passions or foibles, and is very self-centered. The author neatly shows how the events of the summer are an awakening for her and she softens in her attitudes. Other characters are somewhat more two-dimensional. The denizens of Rose’s Minnesota neighborhood are remarkably varied – I hesitate to say it but it did feel a bit like the author had a diversity checklist she was working through (Japanese – check, Latinx – check, gay couple – check). However, Ms Hill does a nice job of showing how the pumpkin project brings the community together.

I found it very odd that Rose is eighteen inches taller than her twin brother and no explanation is ever given for this. Is it a medical condition? Is it something that can happen with fraternal twins? It’s not clear, and I’m not sure of the purpose of it either. It does emphasize their difference for sure, but then so does Rose playing cello while Thomas mucks about in the garden.

Overall, I found this a fairly pleasant read but it is very long at 448 pages for an upper elementary/lower middle school novel. And there is A LOT going on and it doesn’t always mesh together very well. The author clearly has some fascinating ideas and interests and has done her research thoroughly, but doesn’t quite manage to shape it all into a smooth flowing novel. Rose and Thomas are sad to learn that they should cull all but one of their pumpkins so all the growing energy can be focused on that biggest one – I rather feel that’s a metaphor for this novel.

Thanks to Candlewick for the review copy.

What to Say Next by Julie Buxbaum

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What to Say Next by Julie Buxbaum
Delacorte, July, 2017.

We are in very familiar territory here. Again. It’s a two-hander – a girl and a boy, each with an ‘issue’ (Kit’s father recently died in a car crash, David is on the high functioning end of the Autism spectrum), meet up, become friends, and then maybe more. Not much new to see here.

The main characters are appealing and well written, and the author digs into their emotional depths with skill. The support characters are almost entirely peopled from TV and movie high schools – and the author mentions this often enough for it to, almost, be a sly wink. David’s family is feels straight out of some soapy TV dramedy – say This is Us. Kit’s homelife, on the other hand, feels more off the beaten track, as her Indian mother sinks into depression and despair.

The plot follows its expected route, as Kit and David get to know each other and both credibly find themselves changing as a result of this relationship. There’s a couple of unexpected swerves, the mean kids mostly get their comeuppances, and there’s even a makeover scene, though maybe not quite what you’re expecting.

The author’s note mentions “lots of research” though nothing specific is detailed. I assume this is on the autism spectrum but, as David notes, quoting a well-known aphorism, if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism. I have to say, he feels a bit like a caricature of a kid with autism, though with much of the inconvenient stuff rubbed off.

So this has been something of a negative review, which actually doesn’t seem entirely fair, because I did enjoy the novel. It’s easy to read, the characters are engaging and I was rooting for them, the tensions in the plot are nicely balanced, and the pace is brisk but not rushed. It’s not going to change the world but it will give you a pleasant afternoon.

Thanks to Delacorte for the review copy.

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Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley

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Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley
Knopf, June, 2017.

My stars! It’s another white heterosexual teen two-hander and yet, even as I roll my eyes at the format, I really enjoyed this Australian romance with a little edge.

Our narrators are Henry, who thinks he’s in love with the self-centered Amy but we know that he isn’t really, and Rachel, who left town three years ago thinking that Henry was in love with Amy and had rejected her declaration of love. A year ago, Rachel’s beloved younger brother, Cal, drowned and she is still getting over it when her Aunt suggests she comes back to Melbourne. And guess where her aunt has got her a job – at Henry’s family’s bookstore. The romance is utterly predictable though charming and funny.

There are some elements, however, that lift this novel above run of the mill romances. Rachel’s grieving over her brother doesn’t just go away and I felt the weight of his death on her. And then there is the Letter Library in the bookstore, where people are encouraged to leave each other notes in books that are not for sale or for borrowing. It’s a lovely idea and fits with one of the themes of missed connections. And it allows the author to show off a bit of erudition and introduce us to some books that we might not have come across otherwise – both modern and classic.

I warmed to the characters starting with the star-crossed narrators themselves, Henry and Rachel, who are endearing, smart, and (mostly) credible and the requisite quirky friends and siblings are all likable, if of a type.

It’s a book about letting go and moving on, and all the main characters do that in some shape or form, and it is a bit of a weepy. However, not everything turns out entirely perfectly, so the author can’t be accused of glossing over everything.

I do have a couple of quibbles. Henry and Rachel are meant to be recently graduated high schoolers but they felt older to me – as though the author had written this about an early to mid-20’s couple but then realized she’d do better with a YA audience so just changed their ages. Also, I assume the Internet works the same in Australia as it does here, so I found Rachel’s ability to keep her brother’s death a secret a bit hard to believe.

Nonetheless, a reader looking out for an easy reading romance that isn’t too syrupy could happily end up with Words in Deep Blue.

Thanks to Knopf for the review copy.

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Little Monsters by Kara Thomas

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Little Monsters by Kara Thomas
Delacorte, July 2017

Kara Thomas’s second psychological mystery builds on all the good things from her debut, The Darkest Corners (2016), and resolves all the issues I had with that book. In short, it’s a thrillingly menacing and atmospheric chiller in which none of the characters are quite who they seem to be.

High school senior Kacey has only recently arrived in Broken Falls, Wisconsin, moving in with her dad and his blended family after one too many blow-ups with her single mom’s endless stream of boyfriends. She makes friends and becomes the third leg of “BaileyandJade and Kacey.” All in all, she can’t quite believe how easygoing her new life is.

But then one night Bailey goes missing and at first the local police show little interest – just another teenage runaway. But Kacey and Jade start digging up evidence that points to a local boy with a grudge against Bailey.

Once again Ms Thomas brilliantly evokes the milieu of a white working class town: Most of the highschoolers have no escape and are trapped there for the rest of their lives, the lucky few can’t wait to get out. The heavy snows adds to the claustrophobic atmosphere, and the local tall tale about a murdered family piles on the eeriness.

The plot is perfectly paced; layers are gradually peeled off the emotional lives of the characters exposing the depths of their pain and desperation, gradually leading to a wildly twisty (and for me, unpredictable) denouement.

Ideal for teens who like a side of creepy with their mysteries.

Thanks to Delacorte/Random House for the review copy.

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